Kim Sengupta: Troops failed by Whitehall subterfuge and secrecy

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The Independent Online

Subterfuge, confusion, a lack of resources and a defence secretary out of the loop for much of the time as the country prepared for war. These were the factors behind the shortages faced by British forces as they went into Iraq in 2003.

There was much that Geoff Hoon did not know in the run-up to hostilities, the Iraq inquiry heard yesterday. He did not know about one of the key claims which would be made in the "dodgy dossier" to justify the invasion, that Saddam Hussein could carry out a chemical attack in 45 minutes; he did not know that Tony Blair had already secretly agreed to take part in the attack with George W Bush, and, most crucially, he did not know when Mr Blair wanted the forces to be ready for battle.

The former defence secretary attempted to blame the man whom he recently attempted to unseat in a putsch, Gordon Brown, for the woes of the troops, accusing the then-chancellor of starving the forces of cash for years. As a result, he said, much of the equipment needed for a full-scale war had to be bought at the last minute through the system of "urgent operational requirements" (UORs).

That, however, was not the primary reason why service personnel found themselves lacking so many things, from boots to body armour and ammunition. Mr Hoon told the inquiry he was kept in the dark by Mr Blair on the plans for the invasion. At the insistence of the service chiefs, who warned him that it would take at least six months to get on campaign footing, he repeatedly trekked to Downing Street – but came back none the wiser. Mr Hoon failed to acknowledge, however, that it was this lack of direction which resulted in the UORs, when they were put in, coming too late for supplies to be found in time.

Mr Hoon recounted a visit when he was accompanied by the chief of defence staff, Lord Boyce: "When we both went to meetings in Downing Street saying 'Look, you need to get on with this,' we were told, 'Calm down, you can't get on with it while the diplomatic process is under way... Mike [Lord Boyce] and I went to meetings in September where we were both made very well aware of the attitude in Downing Street towards the requirements of minimising publicity and avoiding visibility of preparations."

It is being charitable to say that Mr Hoon genuinely believed that a diplomatic solution was still being sought by the US and UK. If he had any inkling that the decision to join President Bush in overthrowing Saddam had already been made at No 10, the failure to alert the commanders would have been a gross dereliction of duty.

As it is, the former defence secretary had to admit to the inquiry that the disorganised supply of equipment meant that some units were given double the required sets of body armour while others received none at all; that desert camouflage was not sent in time; that the wrong type of boots were sent; that ships were not chartered in time to move heavy equipment and armour – and that this woeful failure to provide adequate supplies was blamed for the deaths of soldiers, most notably Sergeant Steven Roberts, who was shot dead in March 2003 after having to give up his body armour.

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